Anxiety is becoming increasingly prolific in today’s society, particularly among young people. While everybody feels anxious at some point in their lives, anxiety disorders can be all-encompassing unless you seek help. But what exactly is anxiety, and how do you treat it? The main type of anxiety is referred to by health specialists as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), which is characterised by continued feelings of worry, fear and unease that are present for much of the time and not restricted to specific situations.
With panic attacks, we might show them a diagram and explain the fight-or-flight response; their mind or body is trying to help them. If you’ve had a panic attack that came out of the blue, you might become afraid of lightheadedness and avoid activities that spur adrenaline. So we might hyperventilate for a minute in a controlled way to get to the point where they’re not afraid of their own bodily sensation. We work on internal avoidance of those cues that become scary, and desensitize them.
It is not clear what causes panic disorder. In many people who have the biological vulnerability to panic attacks, they may develop in association with major life changes (such as getting married, having a child, starting a first job, etc.) and major lifestyle stressors. There is also some evidence that suggests that the tendency to develop panic disorder may run in families. People who suffer from panic disorder are also more likely than others to suffer from depression, attempt suicide, or to abuse alcohol or drugs.
Anxiety attacks usually peak within 10 minutes, and they rarely last more than 30 minutes. But during that short time, the terror can be so severe that you feel as if you’re about to die or totally lose control. The physical symptoms of anxiety attacks are themselves so frightening that many people believe they’re having a heart attack. After an anxiety attack is over, you may be worried about having another one, particularly in a public place where help isn’t available or you can’t easily escape.
Dr. John Grohol is the founder, Editor-in-Chief & CEO of Psych Central. He is an author, researcher and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues -- as well as the intersection of technology and human behavior -- since 1992. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member and treasurer of the Society for Participatory Medicine. He writes regularly and extensively on mental health concerns, the intersection of technology and psychology, and advocating for greater acceptance of the importance and value of mental health in today's society. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by chronic and exaggerated worry and tension, much more than the typical anxiety that most people experience in their daily lives. People may have trembling, twitching, muscle tension, nausea, irritability, poor concentration, depression, fatigue, headaches, light-headedness, breathlessness or hot flashes.
Seek medical follow-up. For those who are diagnosed with panic disorder, depression, or another form of anxiety disorder, the news is encouraging when treatment is received. These disorders are usually well controlled with medications. However, many people suffer the effects of these illnesses for years before coming to a doctor for evaluation. These conditions can be extremely disabling, so follow-up after the initial visit to the doctor is crucial so that diagnosis and treatment can continue.
Generally, anxiety arises first, often during childhood. Evidence suggests that both biology and environment can contribute to the disorder. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety; however, even so, development of the condition is not inevitable. Early traumatic experiences can also reset the body’s normal fear-processing system so that it is hyper-reactive.
Although individual participants may benefit from being part of a clinical trial, participants should be aware that the primary purpose of a clinical trial is to gain new scientific knowledge so that others may be better helped in the future. Decisions about whether to apply for a clinical trial and which ones are best suited for a given individual are best made in collaboration with a licensed health professional.
Medication can be used to temporarily control or reduce some of the symptoms of panic disorder. However, it doesn’t treat or resolve the problem. Medication can be useful in severe cases, but it should not be the only treatment pursued. Medication is most effective when combined with other treatments, such as therapy and lifestyle changes, that address the underlying causes of panic disorder.
Treatment for panic disorder includes medication, psychotherapy or a combination of the two. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy, teaches people how to view panic attacks differently and demonstrates ways to reduce anxiety. Appropriate treatment by an experienced professional can reduce or prevent panic attacks in 70 to 90% of people with panic disorder. Most patients show significant progress after a few weeks of therapy. Relapses may occur, but they can often be effectively treated just like the initial episode.
The degree of accompanying stress response and its physiological, psychological, and emotional changes are directly proportional to the degree of anxiety. For example, if you are only slightly concerned, such as being slightly nervous about meeting someone new, the body produces a small degree stress response. The small degree stress response can be so slight that you don’t even notice it.
As is the case the more generalized forms of social anxiety, intergroup anxiety has behavioral, cognitive, and affective effects. For instance, increases in schematic processing and simplified information processing can occur when anxiety is high. Indeed, such is consistent with related work on attentional bias in implicit memory. Additionally recent research has found that implicit racial evaluations (i.e. automatic prejudiced attitudes) can be amplified during intergroup interaction. Negative experiences have been illustrated in producing not only negative expectations, but also avoidant, or antagonistic, behavior such as hostility. Furthermore, when compared to anxiety levels and cognitive effort (e.g., impression management and self-presentation) in intragroup contexts, levels and depletion of resources may be exacerbated in the intergroup situation.
Shortness of breath is a common symptom of panic attacks that can make you feel frantic and out of control. Acknowledge that your shortness of breath is a symptom of a panic attack and that this is only temporary. Then begin by taking a deep breath in for a total of four seconds, hold for a second, and release it for a total of four seconds. Keep repeating this pattern until your breathing becomes controlled and steady. Focusing on the count of four not only will prevent you from hyperventilating, but it can also help to stop other symptoms in their tracks.
If you have Panic Disorder, the chances are very high that you have altered your life in some significant way in an effort to prevent or avoid additional panic attacks. It is common, for instance, for people to limit their travel; to restrict their driving (maybe staying within a certain radius from home, or avoiding highways); to avoid large, crowded shopping malls; and in general, to attempt to avoid any activity from which "escape" may be difficult.
Try your best not to avoid or push away feelings of panic. Instead, breathe into the experience and practice your acceptance (as described above). Avoiding situations or bodily sensations associated with panic attacks may seem helpful in the short-term because it helps to immediately make our anxiety decrease. But in the long-term, it is not helpful because it teaches our brains that those physical sensations were a "true alarm" or something to really be afraid of. Instead, if we approach the sensations and situations that make us anxious, perhaps a little bit at a time, we can rewire our brains over time to learn that these things are not so scary after all. By repeating this approach process over and over, you can begin to see that these physical sensations you are having are not so scary and this can help reduce panic symptoms in the future or at least make them much more manageable in the moment. Remember the saying, "avoidance is anxiety's best friend" because the more we avoid, the more anxious we tend to feel. So, try out approaching the things that make you anxious with an "I can do this!" attitude.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Physical Symptoms: People with panic disorder may also have irritable bowel syndrome, characterized by intermittent bouts of gastrointestinal cramps and diarrhea or constipation, or a relatively minor heart problem called mitral valve prolapse, which can trigger panic attacks in some people. In fact, panic disorder often coexists with unexplained medical problems, such as chest pain not associated with a heart attack or chronic fatigue.
According to a study published in Psychology Medicine1, people who suffer from panic attacks and panic disorder may be at higher risk of heart attack and heart disease later in life. While the link between panic disorder and heart disease remains controversial, the study found that compared to individuals without panic disorder, sufferers were found to have up to a 36% higher risk of heart attack and up to 47% higher risk of heart disease. If you suffer from panic attacks, seek attention for any chest pain symptoms in order to rule out any issues with heart health.
Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders are characterized by obsessive, intrusive thoughts (e.g. constantly worrying about staying clean, or about one's body size) that trigger related, compulsive behaviors (e.g. repeated hand-washing, or excessive exercise). These behaviors are performed to alleviate the anxiety associated with the obsessive thoughts. These types of disorders can restrict participation in everyday life and/or generate significant distress, for instance, by making it difficult to leave the house without many repetitions of a compulsive behavior (e.g. checking that the doors are locked). Periodically experiencing worry or having a few "idiosyncratic" habits does not constitute an obsessive-compulsive or related disorder. Instead, these disorders are characterized by unusually high levels of worry and related compulsive behaviors, in comparison with a typical range of individuals.
Anxiety is distinguished from fear, which is an appropriate cognitive and emotional response to a perceived threat. Anxiety is related to the specific behaviors of fight-or-flight responses, defensive behavior or escape. It occurs in situations only perceived as uncontrollable or unavoidable, but not realistically so. David Barlow defines anxiety as "a future-oriented mood state in which one is not ready or prepared to attempt to cope with upcoming negative events," and that it is a distinction between future and present dangers which divides anxiety and fear. Another description of anxiety is agony, dread, terror, or even apprehension. In positive psychology, anxiety is described as the mental state that results from a difficult challenge for which the subject has insufficient coping skills.
Panic attacks may also be caused by substances. Discontinuation or marked reduction in the dose of a substance such as a drug (drug withdrawal), for example an antidepressant (antidepressant discontinuation syndrome), can cause a panic attack. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, "the most commonly reported side effects of smoking marijuana are anxiety and panic attacks. Studies report that about 20% to 30% of recreational users experience such problems after smoking marijuana."
Panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress. These sensations often mimic symptoms of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions. As a result, the diagnosis of panic disorder is frequently not made until extensive and costly medical procedures fail to provide a correct diagnosis or relief.
Over time, many who suffer panic attacks develop an on-going fear of having another attack. This fear can severely hamper daily activities and overall quality of life. Some people refuse to leave their houses or to put themselves in situations that remind them of their previous attacks. Agoraphobia (a fear of being outside of known and safe surroundings) or other mental problems may follow.
When we’re anxious, the body produces a stress response. The stress response is designed to give us an extra ‘boost’ of awareness and energy when we think we could be in danger. The stress response causes a number of physiological, psychological, and emotional changes in the body that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a perceived threat – to either fight or flee, which is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight response.’
Benzodiazepines are often used to provide short-term relief of panic symptoms. Clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan) are examples of this group of medications. Although another benzodiazepine, alprazolam (Xanax), is often used to treat panic attacks, the short period of time that it works can cause the panic sufferer to have to take it multiple times each day. Benzodiazepines tend to be effective in decreasing panic attacks by up to 70%-75% almost immediately; however, this class of medications has a strong addiction potential and should be used with caution. Additional drawbacks include sedation, memory loss, and after several weeks, tolerance to their effects and withdrawal symptoms may occur.
These episodes are a serious health problem in the U.S. At least 20% of adult Americans, or about 60 million people, will suffer from panic at some point in their lives. About 1.7% of adult Americans, or about 3 million people, will have full-blown panic disorder at some time in their lives, women twice as often as men. The most common age at which people have their first panic attack (onset) is between 15 and 19 years of age. Panic attacks are significantly different from other types of anxiety, in that panic attacks are very sudden and often unexpected, appear to be unprovoked, and are often disabling.
Treatment of anxiety focuses on a two-pronged approach for most people, that focuses on using psychotherapy combined with occasional use of anti-anxiety medications on an as-needed basis. Most types of anxiety can be successfully treated with psychotherapy alone — cognitive-behavioral and behavioral techniques have been shown to be very effective. Anti-anxiety medications tend to be fast-acting and have a short-life, meaning they leave a person’s system fairly quickly (compared to other psychiatric medications, which can take weeks or even months to completely leave).
The above statements are two examples of what a panic attack might feel like. Panic attacks may be symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Historically, panic has been described in ancient civilizations, as with the reaction of the subjects of Ramses II to his death in 1213 BC in Egypt, and in Greek mythology as the reaction that people had to seeing Pan, the half man, half goat god of flocks and shepherds. In medieval then Renaissance Europe, severe anxiety was grouped with depression in descriptions of what was then called melancholia. During the 19th century, panic symptoms began to be described as neurosis, and eventually the word panic began being used in psychiatry.
All human beings experience anxiety. In many cases, anxiety can have some beneficial and adaptive qualities such as pushing one to study for an upcoming difficult exam or propelling a person to flee from danger. Although experiencing some anxiety with life stressors and worries is normal, sometimes it can be difficult to manage and can feel overwhelming. Below we provide a list of tips and strategies to help individuals prevent anxiety from reaching a diagnosable level. Even though not everyone will struggle with a diagnosable anxiety disorder, learning strategies to aid in relief from anxiety and to manage the "normal" anxiety experienced in everyday life can help you live the life you desire.
If you are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you just can’t shake your concerns about anything and everything. And the severity of the condition may come and go. During mild episodes of your condition, you are more likely to be able to hold down a job and not have the disorder interfere too much with your social life. When your anxiety flares up, you might experience difficulty with everyday life situations and find the simplest tasks unbearable.
Anxiety disorders can often be addressed successfully with a combination of therapy and medication. For therapy, patients may undergo psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, in which they learn to change how they respond to situations that induce anxiety. For medications, clinicians may, for limited periods of time, prescribe antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or tricyclics, tranquilizers such as benzodiazepines; they may also prescribe beta blockers for specific events. Different strategies can also help people who experience feelings of anxiety but the severity of which falls below the clinical threshold for diagnosis. Habits such as exercising, sleeping well, and limiting the amount of caffeine and alcohol consumed can prove helpful. Strategies such as taking deep breaths, acknowledging limits to fully controlling situations, pushing back against anxious or irrational thoughts, and observing the circumstances that tend to produce anxiety are proven to reduce anxiety by helping people feel better prepared in the future.
Situationally predisposed panic attacks don’t always occur immediately upon exposure to a feared situation or cue, but the individual is more likely to experience an attack in such situations. For example, a person who has a fear of social situations but who does not experience a panic episode in every social situation, or who experiences a delayed attack after being in a social environment for an extended period of time.
Since panic attacks are caused by overly apprehensive behavior or chronic stress, addressing our overly apprehensive behavior and stress can stop and prevent panic attacks, and eventually, panic disorder. The combination of good self-help information and therapy is the most effective way of addressing overly apprehensive behavior. Accessing good self-help information and applying it is a good way to reduce stress.
Psychotherapy is at least as important as medication treatment of panic disorder. In fact, research shows that psychotherapy alone or the combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment are more effective than medications alone in overcoming panic attacks. To address anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy is widely accepted as an effective form of psychotherapy. This form of therapy seeks to help those with panic disorder identify and decrease the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that reinforce panic symptoms. Behavioral techniques that are often used to decrease anxiety include relaxation and gradually increasing the panic sufferer's exposure to situations that may have previously caused anxiety. Helping the anxiety sufferer understand the emotional issues that may have contributed to developing symptoms is called panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy and has also been found to be effective.
Some people have only one or two attacks and are never bothered again. Panic attacks can occur with other psychiatric disorders. In panic disorders, however, the panic attacks return repeatedly and the person develops an intense fear of having another attack. Without help, this "fear of fear" can make people avoid certain situations and can interfere with their lives even when they are not having a panic attack. Therefore, it is very important to recognize the problem and get help.
Characterized by a preoccupation with the belief that one's body or appearance are unattractive, ugly, abnormal or deformed. This preoccupation can be directed towards one or many physical attributes (e.g., acne, hair loss, facial features). Muscle dysmorphia is a subtype of this disorder that is characterized by belief that one's body is too small or insufficiently muscular.